From The Vaults

19 July 2021
Tom Richards, the Australia Campaign and the road to the King's Cup

Tom 'Rusty' Richards had played rugby for Australia, capped in three matches between 1908 and 1910, and while playing rugby in the Transvaal, won a further two caps for the British Isles against South Africa in 1910, having 'qualified' for the visiting team through having played for the Bristol club. A year later he returned to Australia.

Tom Richards

On 10 August 1914 he applied to join the Light Horse Brigade but recruitment was so great he failed to get in. Instead he enlisted in the 1st Field Ambulance, 1st Australian Division and commenced training a fortnight later.

Rusty kept a diary during his service in the Great War. On 24 April 1915, five days before his thirty-third birthday, he recorded: "I don't feel the coming danger [the forthcoming Gallipoli invasion] any more than I have felt anxious the night before an international football match." Like Richards, Herbert Mitchell, who had also played for Manly, kept a record of his time in the war. In a letter, dated 29 September 1915, to his rugby team mates he praised the qualities that rugby fostered and their compatibility for battles, "I met a number of fellows who played the old game, and all acquitted themselves well, which goes to show there is nothing like rugby to turn out the rugged and determined fellow."

The Australian Ministry of Defence referred to the able Australian soldier. Though resistance to callous and barbarous behaviour was common among the Australian Imperial Force, there also existed numerous 'casual admissions' in soldiers letters of the commital of war crimes and a common belief in the killing of Germans, in cold blood or otherwise, as being of no crime in the AIF.

Pro-war groups never failed to draw parallels between the sports field and the battlefield. Soldiers on the fields of battle dismissed these comparisons. Soon recruitment to the colours back in Australia slowed considerably. The slaughter of so many young Australians and the length of the campaign meant that the authorities had to refigure their strategy. A document entitled "The General Plan of the 1918 campaign for reinforcing the AIF" contained no reference to sporting slogans and appeals.

Test cricketer Keith Millar was asked how he handled pressure on the cricket field. Looking back at his career as a Royal Australian Air Force pilot in the Second World War he replied, "pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Cricket is not".

Just days after the cessation of hostilities a former Director-General of Recruiting Donald Mackinnon stated, "when the history of the War comes to be written the work of sport would be fully realised. The men had played the game."

The war over, the Australian Imperial Force published an account of their sporting activities during the period between November 1918 and September 1919. The chapter, 'Rugby Football' took up seven pages. The report was published in London by the AIF Sports Control Board in October 1919.

English born Major Sydney Albert Middleton, DSO of the 19th Battalion, had rowed in the Australian eight at Henley, won a gold medal representing the Australian Rugby Union team in the 1908 Olympic Games and a further four rugby caps for Australia in 1909 - 10. His efforts had played a big part in making a reputation in sport for his own battalion and he was summoned to Corps Headquarters, and told on arrival to get busy and entertain several hundred thousand soldiers whose jobs had been completed - in so far as the fighting part of them was concerned. Middleton very soon mapped out a scheme embracing a most extensive sports programme for the men in the field. He also pointed out that, in all probability, Army Championships would be held during the demobilisation period, and no time should be lost in getting the best Australian athletes together.

The winter was very soon at its worst, and this put a limit on the amount of sport which it was possible to carry out. However, football (rugby, association and Australian Rules) and boxing were very soon going merrily along. Broadly speaking, the general policy throughout the Corps was to encourage all forms of sport for which there was a demand, or where it was considered that interest could be created. On these lines, therefore, the officers set to work.

The result of their efforts was very soon apparent. Inter-platoon, inter-company, inter-battalion, inter-brigade, inter-division, inter-corps, and inter-army competitions in various forms of sport were held near the village of Barbencon,in Belgium, and interest kept at high tension throughout the whole of the winter.

At least six Divisional rugby sides were created, with each team to play every other team. The teams were scattered around the countryside and the grounds were not by any means ideal. One day a game would be played on a field covered with a few inches of snow. At another time the snow would give place to a similar depth of mud, and yet again the ground would be frozen hard. Transport difficulties were overcome by the provision of lorries by Divisional Headquarters, and teams had often to undertake journeys of between twelve and twenty miles - and even more - over bumpy roads, and return after the game. The cold and general discomfort, however, were not at any time sufficient to overcome the enthusiasm of the players, who always towed around a crowd of equally enthusiastic supporters.

A rugby team representing the Corps was sent to Paris to do battle with a French Army team on 19 January 1919. The team was under the management of Major W 'Wally' F Matthews, a well-known, pre-war Sydney University player (the father of the boy sitting in the lap of Dan Carroll in the photograph of the AIF Team, p 50, "The King's Cup 1919: Rugby's First 'World Cup'" / Howard Evans and Phil Atkinson, 2015). The AIF won 6 - 3. At the conclusion of this match, the team was sent to England. It played various matches against teams on the other side of the Channel and also met the AIF Headquarters team. It was from these two teams that the Australian XV for the Inter-Service Rugby Competition was selected. The teams, while in London, trained mostly at Chiswick Park. The team's headquarters were at Warwick Square. The rugby competition, for a cup presented by the King, was duly inaugurated.

The results have been chronicled in the aforementioned Evans & Atkinson book. Australia played in five matches, winning three, losing two. However, the book and the official report differ in a few instances:

In match no. 12, played on 5 April 1919, between Australia 38 - Canada O, Evans & Atkinson record that Thompson kicked 4 conversions. The official report records that Thompson kicked 3 conversions and Bradley one.

The official report also includes matches played before the commencement of the competition:

  • 22 February - Leicester Co. 6 Australia 8 (at Leicester).
  • 26 February - Australia 20 New Zealand Army 'A' 9 (at Richmond).
  • The Reserve Team's games included:
  • 15 February - v AIF Depot 19 - 0 (at Warminster).
  • 19 February - v 18th Wing Royal air Force 52 - 0 (at Hounslow).
  • 22 February - v AIF Depot 8 3 (at Warminster).
  • 26 February - v New Zealand Army "B" 3 -17 (at Richmond).
  • 8 March - v Guy's Hospital 25 - 0 (at Chiswick).
  • 15 March - v Llanelly 11 - 0 (at Llanelly). According to Evans & Atkinson the score was 17 - 0.
  • 12 April - v Llanelly 8 - 11 (at Llanelly).
  • 19 April - v Exmouth & Exeter 19 - 3 (at Exmouth). According to Evans & Atkinson the score was 9 - 3.
  • 21 April - v Devon Co. 21 - 3 (at Newton Abbott).
  • 23 April - v Teignmouth 40 - 3 (at Teignmouth).

The official report notes that the Reserve Team played 12 won 9 lost 3.

The teams left Britain for Australia about the middle of May, the intention at the time of their departure being that they should play matches in Sydney and Brisbane before being disbanded.


  • Soldiers and sportsmen: an account of the sporting activities of the Australian Imperial Force during the period between November, 1918, and September, 1919. London: AIF Sports Control Board, 1919.
  • (pp 22 -28 Rugby Football).
  • Diary of Thomas Richards, 2DRE/0786, Australian War Memorial.
  • Official History of Australia in the War of 1914 - 1918: Volume VI: The Australian Imperial Force in France - the Armistice / CEW Bean. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1942
  • The King's Cup 1919: Rugby's first 'World Cup' / Howard Evans and Phil Atkinson. Cardiff: St David's Press, 2015.

About the Author - John Jenkins is a retired librarian and the compiler of "A Rugby Compendium: an Authoritative Guide to the Literature of Rugby Union", 1998, and co-author of the "Who's Who of Welsh International Rugby Players", 1991 and 2018.